Op-Ed: July 4th, 5th of Iyar - What's in a Date?
Yonatan SredniYonatan Sredni lives in Israel and has an MA in Creative Writing from Bar Ilan University.
“It's easy to be critical of the United States, and people love to try to take us down,”
Late Show host David Letterman quipped recently in one of his opening monologues. “But I want to tell you something. Here in the United States of America we produce more three-day weekends than any other country in the world!”
Letterman has a point. On June 28, 1968, the United States Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which moved four holidays, Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day from their fixed traditional dates to designated Mondays. The Act was designed to create and increase the number convenient ‘three-day weekends’ for federal employees. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971.
One holiday which was not moved was American Independence Day, known by most Americans simply as ‘The 4th of July’. While participation levels may vary according to which day of the week the 4th falls on (if the holiday falls in the middle of the week, some fireworks displays and celebrations may take place during the weekend for convenience, varying by region), the official observance always falls on July 4th.
To Americans, the 4th of July is a rather ‘sacred’ date. American law makers realized the significance of what happened on July 4th, 1776. In the 236 years since The Declaration of Independence was signed on that date, American Independence Day has not been permanently moved to a Monday (even if it falls in the middle of the week as it does this year) merely for the sake of creating yet another ‘long weekend’.
American law makers realized the significance of what happened on July 4th, 1776.
But in Israel the opposite is true. The Knesset is in the midst of passing a new law establishing that from now on Israel’s Independence Day (Yom Ha'atzmaut) will be forever celebrated on a Thursday, creating permanent annual ‘three- day weekend’. Assuming the law passes (and it is expected to pass easily), Independence Day would always be observed on the Thursday of the week in which the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar falls.
Proponents of the bill say that it won't cost the state anything, and would make it easier for employers and municipalities to prepare for the holiday. Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov (Yisrael Beytenu), who is the chairman of the Ministerial Committee for Ceremonies and Symbols, also said that the bill “will prevent special vacation days in the middle of the week, which are disruptive to the Israeli market.” Meseznikov added that the legislation would make it easier for bereaved families to prepare for Remembrance Day, which would now always fall on a Wednesday.
Perhaps the biggest 'winners' are members of the general public in Israel. Permanently moving Yom Ha'atzmaut to Thursday will give Israelis an annual 'three day weekend', something Americans enjoy a number of times a year.
But let’s consider the facts. Yom Ha'atzmaut was established as the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar because that was the date on the Hebrew calendar on which David Ben-Gurion declared independence (May 15th, 1948).
Under a rule that has been followed since 1951, when the fifth of Iyar falls on Friday or Shabbat (in fact, in 1948 when the state was declared, it was a Friday) Yom Ha'atzmaut is celebrated on the preceding Thursday, in order to avoid conflict with the Shabbat. Additionally, in 2004 another rule was imposed.
If the fifth of Iyar is on a Monday, Independence Day is postponed to Tuesday, in order to avoid potential violation of Shabbat laws by preparing for Yom Hazikaron or Yom Ha'atzmaut on the preceding Shabbat.
In the Hebrew calendar, the fifth of Iyar can only fall on four specific days of the week: Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Shabbat. As mentioned above, in three of those cases Independence Day is observed on a different date. Only if the fifth of Iyar falls on a Wednesday is Yom Ha'atzmaut actually celebrated on its original date, the fifth of Iyar.
While I personally see the logic in the Knesset’s proposed move to permanently move Independence Day to Thursday (and who doesn't love a three day weekend?), there is one 'small' issue that bothers me. Currently (under the rules mentioned above), Yom Ha'atzmaut is celebrated on the fifth of Iyar only if it falls on Wednesday, which happens 28.5% of the time (around once in every four years or so on the average). If the law is passed, the fifth of Iyar will NEVER be observed as Independence Day ever again. It will be replaced by the 3rd, 4th, 6th, or even 8th of Iyar.
Is there nothing 'sacred' about the date 'the fifth of Iyar'?
True, Independence Day already gets bumped from its original date most of the time, so what's the big deal about moving it to Thursdays permanently? Maybe it’s just me feeling sentimental about a date on the calendar. But maybe we should make a big deal about it. The state of Israel was declared on the fifth of Iyar sixty four years ago. True, it sometimes gets moved to avoid Shabbat desecration, but the new law ensures that Independence Day will never again be celebrated on its original date, the 5th of Iyar, even if it falls on a Wednesday, a day of the week which causes no religious conflicts or objections.
I'm all for three-day weekends, but aren't we missing something here? At least let's hold on to the fifth of Iyar once every four years or so (whenever it falls on a Wednesday). Ok, so we wouldn't have a long 'three day weekend' that year, but if by some miracle this 'only on a Thursday' law doesn't get passed, at least we wouldn’t forget (once every few years) what the Hebrew date was when Ben-Gurion stood up and declared the independent state of Israel. S
ixty four years ago there were those who objected to Ben-Gurion's bold decision to declare independence on that date. They felt he should wait. But our first Prime Minister was determined. He knew it was now or never. He knew that such a crucial act could not be delayed – and he did it - on the fifth of Iyar.
The aforementioned Uniform Monday Holiday Act included moving America’s Memorial Day from its traditional May 30th date to the last Monday in May. However, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) advocate returning to the original date. The VFW stated in a 2002 Memorial Day Address: "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."
In Israel, the observance of Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism Remembrance Day), is anything but nonchalant. Its date on the Hebrew calendar, however, is not fixed in itself but dependant. It is always observed on the day preceding Israel's Independence Day.
But the point made by the American Veterans is still valid. Moving the date of the observance of a holiday permanently simply to create a ‘long weekend’ causes the day to lose some of its significance.
American Independence Day will always be The 4th of July. The question is when (what day of Iyar) should we celebrate Israel's Independence Day? Well, if you're asking me, I'm taking the fifth!